DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) It was a bumpy buildup to the Daytona 500, which for days was overshadowed by disputes, drama, an injury to Kyle Busch and the suspension of his older brother, Kurt.
Dozens of cars were wrecked, and on the morning of NASCAR’s season-opening showcase, reigning series champion Kevin Harvick warned ”we’re going to tear up some (more).”
So there was every reason to feel anxious going into ”The Great American Race.”
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It wasn’t necessary, as the Daytona 500 proved entertaining and trouble free – exactly what NASCAR needed.
”It was a great day, a really good event, and we enjoyed it,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR radio.
After Jeff Gordon, racing in his final Daytona 500, led the field to green, he set the pace and led a race-high 87 laps as the event settled into a rhythm. With anticipation building for the final 50 miles, known as go-time at superspeedways because the intensity inches toward its fevered pitch, the racing picked up tremendously.
Drivers fanned out three-wide all the way through the field as cars rode door-to-door in some of the most breathtaking racing in years. It was Joey Logano for Team Penske who grabbed the checkered flag, albeit under caution because when the racing is that frenzied, something is always going to give. A wreck in the middle of the field occurred on the last lap of the two-lap sprint to the finish, and NASCAR threw the yellow flag that froze the field.
Logano, a 24 year old from Connecticut who is cementing himself as one of NASCAR’s next stars, drove to victory lane. The drivers who finished second, third and fourth headed for post-race media obligations, their moods light and playful even though they’d failed to catch Logano with the win on the line.
That last-lap caution? Maybe it robbed NASCAR of a potentially spectacular finish, but after 10 messy days, everyone just needed a drama-free event.
The first exhibition of Speedweeks, with drivers racing for the first time since November, lived up to what it always has been: A crash-fest with only a dozen or so cars running at the end. It’s a product of the race not counting toward anything of significant value, and drivers shaking the rust off after an idle offseason.
But things went amiss during the first round of Daytona 500 qualifying, which was an absolute debacle under a new format. An accident in the first group session sent several drivers to backup cars, and NASCAR’s biggest stars pounced on the sanctioning body for creating something that favored entertainment over practicality and speed.
The final session was calculated scheming, as drivers idled on pit road watching a clock tick down before they made a hurried last-gasp run for the pole. It was a mockery of the system and NASCAR needed just three days before it set restrictions in place for the Xfinity and Truck Series qualifying.
The new rules didn’t help much – Xfinity qualifying was marked by its own multi-car pileup.
Danica Patrick had her share of drama after a pair of incidents with Denny Hamlin forced her into two different backup cars. After their second fracas, she angrily confronted him on pit road for a heated confrontation that Hamlin repeatedly tried to soften by placing his hand on her shoulder while presenting a measured defense.
The two made up a day later, but attention swiftly moved on to real-life issues and away from the typical NASCAR controversy.
A Delaware family judge issued a lengthy opinion that found Kurt Busch almost certainly committed a domestic assault against an ex-girlfriend last fall. NASCAR immediately suspended the 2004 champion, and Busch urgently tried to appeal.
He spent several hours Saturday before a three-judge panel, which ultimately upheld his indefinite suspension. He filed to have his case heard before NASCAR’s final appeals officer, and the hearing was scheduled for the eve of the Daytona 500.
But as Busch prepared his defense, younger brother, Kyle, was in a violent crash into a concrete wall during Saturday’s Xfinity race. He broke his right leg, his left foot, and forced Daytona officials to admit they had failed in safety precautions by not having a SAFER barrier where Busch hit the wall.
The track vowed to cover every inch of the speedway in expensive SAFER barriers to atone for its error, but it was too late for Kyle Busch. He was in surgery at the same time the appeals officer denied Kurt Busch’s attempt to be reinstated for the Daytona 500.
For the first time since 2000, a Busch brother was not in the Daytona 500, and both are out for an undetermined length of time.
So by the time the actual event rolled around, it was time for just one easy day.
NASCAR got it, along with a new winner and every indication that this season might be one very bumpy ride.